Curriculum and Assessment in Project and Challenge-Based Learning

The Buck Institute of Education defines project-based learning as:

a standards-focused systematic teaching method that engages students in learning knowledge and skills through an extended inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks.

Projects-based learning  is similar to inquiry-based or experiential learning in some ways; however, PBL focuses heavily on standards and the evaluation of student learning.

Wikipedia defines challenge-based learning as:

pedagogic approach for K12 education pioneered by education staff at Apple, Inc. that has its roots in problem-based learning and the work of John Dewey.

Challenge-based learning consists of five components:

  1. The Big Idea
  2. Essential Questions
  3. The Challenge
  4. Guiding Questions and Activities
  5. Guiding Resources
  6. Solutions, Implementations, and Reflections

Both PBL and CBL are standards focused and embrace authentic learning with real world connections.  Both approaches require students to use questioning, collaboration, creativity, and problem solving – all of the higher order thinking skills.  In considering implementation, two main issues surface immediately for me as a teacher:

  1. How can this fit within an existing mapped-curriculum?
  2. How can I adequately and fairly assess my students?

In considering the first, while this presents a challenge for teachers in schools which are curriculum-driven, both PBL and CBL can be utilized effectively to cover multiple areas of a mapped curriculum in an integrated format.  In my 6th grade language arts / social studies classes, we constantly integrate language arts and social studies outcomes within the units that we teach.  The incorporation of more PBL and/or CBL learning experiences would, in my opinion, improve our program.  Nonetheless, we do follow a mapped-curriculum and “coverage” always seems to become an issue.  

Seymour Papert , in his Edutopia article, Project-Based Learningsuggests that, in order for PBL, to be most effective, schools need to rethink the concept of “curriculum”, at least in terms of content coverage and time frames.  He believes in an approach that allows students to learn what they need to know and when they need it.   Nonetheless, even with an “out of the box” curriculum approach such as this, schools still need a way to document, at the very least, which standards are being taught in which years and in which areas.  

Coming from an elementary background, integration has always been the norm for me.  Often times, without it, it would be impossible to teach all of the mapped-curriculum.  Considering this, clearly there is a place for PBL and/or CBL even in schools which are curriculum-driven.  We don’t have to throw out our curriculum to incorporate PBL and CBL types of activities, but a standards-based curriculum map geared more toward process than content along with a similar reporting system should be considered in regarding innovations for 21st century learning in our schools.

Regarding assessment, group grading has always been a bit of a conundrum for me.  Since PBL and CBL are primarily group learning activities, questions regarding the assessment of individual students arise.  It is currently the policy of my team not to issue group grades.  In other words, we refrain from giving the same grade to all individuals in a group.  We do, however, give students individual grades for our “Approaches To Learning”, which includes the stem, “works effectively with others.”  As it stands now, their performance in a group, whether it be stellar or marginal, is not considered when determining their overall academic letter grade for the semester.

We have had many discussions regarding this at our team level and as a division.  Our collective stance seems, still, to be forming.  In good conscience, even if there are real-world implications, it is unfair to give a student who works hard and does their part, and more, a poor grade on a group activity as a result of the performance of others, and vice versa.  Are their ways to get around this?  Certainly there are.  First it is not important that every single activity receive an academic grade.  Our teachers believe that the “Approaches To Learning” marks are just as important as the semester letter grade.

According to Papert, with PBL, we should be assessing, not curricular content, but how kids are “using knowledge”.  Realistically, we still have to assess the “right and wrong” answer type of content.   Teachers can do this through anecdotal records kept for each individual throughout a PBL unit.  Additionally, checklists and rubrics can be created and applied to the individual performances of group members and to the integrated content of the activity.  There are numerous other ways to collect individual data which require a fair amount of thought and ingenuity, but the learning payoffs would make it well worth the effort.

Flickr by dkuropatwa
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

With the added benefit of technology, the possibility for the exploration and incorporation of project-based learning is even greater.  PBL and CBL allow students to collaborate locally and globally  while engaging in the highest levels of Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy:  applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating.  Issues regarding curriculum and assessment become secondary when considering the learning implications associated with these types of authentic endeavors.


About Jamie

I am currently a middle school Language Arts and Social Studies teacher at The American School in Japan.
This entry was posted in Challenge-Based, COETAIL, Projects-Based and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Curriculum and Assessment in Project and Challenge-Based Learning

  1. David Bullio says:

    Hi Jamie,
    Enjoyed reading your post. Thanks for embedding the youtube video on PBL, helped to deepen my understanding of PBL. Regarding group grades, I agree with you that students still need to be individually graded within their group. I do feel the best way is for the teacher to make the rounds daily to the various groups and make anecdotal notes or use a checklist to keep a record of how students are contributing. I also agree with you that we are a bit more lucky in elementary, where we get to integrate a bit more than the folks in middle and high school. I also, feel we get a bit more lucky with our time tables, as we can extend how much time we spend on a topic as our kids don’t have to leave every 50 minutes or so. This was highlighted as something as very important by the Buck Institute for Education.

    I feel like PBL is a valuable learning approach, do you think it will ever become mainstream in elementary schools?

    • Jamie says:

      Thanks for reading, David. Group grading is something that I have never done. PBL, I agree, is such a valuable learning experience and how we assess individual contributions is very important. PBL mainstream in the ES? Well, I firmly believe that the culture of the classroom is changing now more than ever before and PBL fits well within an elementary curriculum framework. Thanks again!

  2. ruthingulsrud says:

    Dear Jamie,
    I also have some difficulty with seeing students graded on group activities. My own daughter has experienced lopsided divisions of labor in group projects where only a few students end up doing mosts of the work. Hopefully the teachers are perceptive enough to grade individuals within the group accordingly, but sometimes, I don’t think that grades are given out fairly on collaborative work.
    Having a longer chunk of time (more than a typical 50 min. period) to do a deep dive into a project is something that ADHD kids, for example, especially need. For some learners, the day is just too fragmented to really learn content thoroughly and make essential connections. Perhaps a yearly two or three week period of a revised schedule that could accommodate PBL or CBL would help some districts try out the new teaching and learning methods and possibly ease into a new way of enabling education and sparking change.

    • Jamie says:

      Thanks Ruth, for taking the time to read the post. Collaborative work is great…in my opinion, collaborative grades are not. I agree that sustained time to learn impacts PBL as well and I like your idea of a revised schedule with more time built in for “deep diving”!

  3. Clair Wain says:

    Dear Jamie

    It is interesting for me to read about the potential challenges for Project Based Learning and Challenge Based Learning from a Middle School Teachers perspective. As a teacher of young children I do not have a predetermined linear curriculum with predefined outcomes to navigate, and I have the enormous advantage of time, as our day is flexible to accommodate the ebb and flow of energy of the children.
    I wonder about the purpose of grading. How much does grading enhance the learning of the children? Recently I have been reading about the value of timely and quality feedback and formative assessment rather than grades and high stakes examinations to enhance and deepen learning, (High stakes testing, accountability, incentives and consequences in English schools, Anne West 2010; Unequal by design: high stakes testing and the standardization of inequality, Michael Vavrus 2010)

    Thank you for offering me another lens through which to view PBL and CBL


    • Jamie says:

      Thanks Clair, for the reading the post and for the great resource. We’ve been spending a lot of time talking about 21st century skills and the changing culture of the classroom. I, too, question the role of grading in terms of actual learning. Coming from a public school background, where end-of-course testing has taken over, I believe that schools and school systems who are serious about change really need to address this assessment issue. Thanks again for reading.

  4. You’re so lucky to have come from an Elementary background – I do too, so I consider myself lucky too 🙂 There are so many natural connections between subjects that are lost as students go higher up in the grade levels (and I think that’s a shame). Totally agree with you about group grades, they’re tough. It’s almost impossible to be fair when more than one student gets the same grade. So interesting that you use the term “Approaches to Learning” – you know this is an MYP term, right?

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